Reading List: World War One – Poetry

Drawing by Siegfried Sassoon.

Drawing by Siegfried Sassoon.

Inspired by this year’s centenary events and wave of media attention, I have spent the last few months diving into works from the Great War and encountered some true gems along the way. It is a fascinating era where artists struggle to put unspeakable horrors into words and try to find meaning in the chaos. For everyone who wants to get into WWI literature, I have put together three reading lists with suggestions, ranging from the big names of the period to lesser known publications that I think deserve more attention. The first post in the series deals with poetry (see: non-fiction and fiction), both from the era itself and by contemporary authors looking back.

The Complete Poems of Wilfred Owen (ed. Jon Stallworthy, 1985), Wilfred Owen (review)

This book is not about heroes. English poetry is not yet fit to speak of them.
Nor is it about deeds, or lands, nor anything about glory, honour, might, majesty, dominion, or power, except War.
Above all I am not concerned with Poetry.
My subject is War, and the pity of War.
The Poetry is in the pity.
Yet these elegies are to this generation in no sense consolatory. They may be to the next. All a poet can do today is warn. That is why the true Poets must be truthful.

The War Poems (ed. Rupert Hart-Davis, 1983), Siegfried Sassoon

Why do you lie with your legs ungainly huddled,
And one arm bent across your sullen, cold,
Exhausted face? It hurts my heart to watch you,
Deep-shadow’d from the candle’s guttering gold;
And you wonder why I shake you by the shoulder;
Drowsy, you mumble and sigh and turn your head…
You are too young to fall asleep for ever;
And when you sleep you remind me of the dead.

1914 & Other Poems (1915), Rupert Brooke

If I should die, think only this of me:
That there’s some corner of a foreign field
That is for ever England. There shall be
In that rich earth a richer dust concealed;
A dust whom England bore, shaped, made aware,
Gave, once, her flowers to love, her ways to roam,
A body of England’s, breathing English air,
Washed by the rivers, blest by suns of home.

Collected Poems (ed. P.J. Kavanagh, 1982), Ivor Gurney

But I weak, hungry, and willing only for the chance
Of line- to fight in the line, lay down under unbroken
Wires, and saw the flashes and kept unshaken,
Till the politest voice – a finicking accent, said:
‘Do you think you might crawl through there: there’s a hole.’
Darkness shot at: I smiled, as politely replied –
‘I’m afraid not, Sir.’ There was no hole, no way to be seen
Nothing but chance of death, after tearing of clothes.

Scars Upon My Heart: Women’s Poetry and Verse of the First World War (ed. Catherine Reilly, 1984)

Your battle-wounds are scars upon my heart,
Received when in that grand and tragic ‘show’
You played your part,
Two years ago,

And silver in the summer morning sun
I see the symbol of your courage glow –
That Cross you won
Two years ago.

1914: Poetry Remembers (ed. Carol Ann Duffy, 2014)

If poetry could tell it backwards, true, begin
that moment shrapnel scythed you to the stinking mud …
but you get up, amazed, watch bled bad blood
run upwards from the slime into its wounds;
see lines and lines of British boys rewind
back to their trenches, kiss the photographs from home -
mothers, sweethearts, sisters, younger brothers
not entering the story now
to die and die and die.
Dulce – No – Decorum – No – Pro patria mori.
You walk away.


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